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Photo of the Week: Hands of a Bolivian Boatbuilder

  • Mauricio Suarez (photo and text)
  • 7 February 2010

Pictured here are the hands of Mr. Demetrio Limachi who, at around 70 years old, is the only surviving brother of three that assisted Norwegian explorer and scientist Thor Heyerdahl in the construction of traditional South America vessels that were used in his famous adventures.

Photo of the Week (7 February 2010) - The hands of Demetrio Limachi, a famous traditional Bolivian boat builder

Having noted the presence of facial hair on some of the Monoliths of Tiwanaku, in Bolivia – an enigma given the absence of beards in contemporary Andean people – Heyerdahl repeatedly set out to test the hypothesis that the natives had not only sailed across Lake Titicaca, but also across the ocean and made contact with people of a different race, specifically the Polynesian islanders of the South Pacific. His remarkable successes have offered one explanation to another curiosity he noted: the discovery of endemic South American plants, such as tobacco and coca leaves at Ramses’ tomb in Egypt.

The ancient civilisations of Bolivia, such as the Tiwanaku, Chiripa and the Inca, were known to have navigated on Lake Titicaca using reed boats. There are some theories, however, that the huge stone blocks at Tiwanaku were brought  to the site on this kind of boat from at least 170 kilometres away. Sailing from the extreme northern part of the lake, the Tiwanaku would either have had to make numerous trips for the challenging project or have built several reed boats for the transportation.

Using the same boat-building techniques and boats, Heyerdahl undertook his most famous expedition, Kon-Tiki, sailing from Callao, Peru, to the Tahiti Islands. ‘Kon-Tiki’ is also the name of the curious bearded monolith which inspired him; it can still  be found in the middle of the Semi Underground temple at the Tiwanaku archaeological site. Heyerdahl’s boat’s sail – today displayed at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo – has a picture of the face of this controversial monolith.

Demetrio, whose hands are pictured above, was part of Heyerdahl’s famous boat-building team. Following successful completion of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl wanted more, so he arranged other projects. Ra I was Heyerdahl’s first attempt to cross the Atlantic from Morocco. In 1969, the boat made in Chad with local technologies and local materials such as papyrus foundered. The following year, Heyerdahl arranged a contest at the small Bolivian Island called Suriki on Lake Titicaca and discovered four brilliant boat makers: Paulino Esteban, Demetrio Limachi and his two younger brothers. This foursome led construction of Ra II, which completed the Atlantic journey; the Tigris, which in 1977  demonstrated that trade and migration could have have been possible between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilizations; and many others.

A reed boat is fully made by hand. As the picture shows, straw is woven to create a very thin but resistant cord, which goes all the way from one end of the boat to the other. A regular boat of about four metres long and 1.5 metres wide can be made by one person in two weeks, but the huge boats, such as those used by Heyerdahl, took more than three months to complete by a team of at least 10 people. The life of one of these boats is no longer than one year, since it starts decomposing and gradually disappears – a fully biodegradable navigation system.

Unfortunately, this ancient art is in danger of becoming a lost art, since only a few people still make such boats, and usually only for touristic purposes. Fortunately, Demetrio, who, along with his brothers, was in 1990 recognised as an honoured citizen by the Bolivian Government, has passed on his wisdom to his nephew, Fermin Limachi, who strives to maintain the family art. Fermin actively participates in important traditional craft projects around the world, such as the Aboras 1, 2 and 3 and, in the near future, Abora 4. You can read more about the project on www.abora3.com.

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adventure travel, Bolivia, fine arts, human interests, lakes, local knowledge, outdoors, personal experience, photo of the week, South America,

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